Thursday, May 6, 2010

Euro Solvency?

The financial markets hate uncertainty. It is the unknown that creates uncertainty and unexpected new information often creates uncertainty because investors must not only absorb the new information but must also translate what they have learned into action!

This is what I tried to emphasize in my post of April 28, 2010, “Greece: The ‘Surprise’ That Breaks The Camel’s Back” ( Recently we were given knowledge that the budget deficit of the Greek government was much worse than we had been told, and, as a result of this news, the rating on Greek bonds was lowered. Immediately, investors began to sell off these bonds.

The financial market unrest continued. Then the European Union and the International Monetary Fund came up with its bailout package of €110 billion “to save the euro by providing Greece with enough cash to meet its financial obligations over the next twelve months or so.” (

The problem is, as I pointed out in this last post, that the response was aimed at preventing a liquidity crisis and not a solvency crisis. These two types of financial crises are different and a failure to understand the difference and react in the appropriate way can just exacerbate a problem and not solve it.

The Federal Reserve under Ben Bernanke has been guilty of this very thing and, as a consequence, has contributed to the lingering solvency problem in the “less than mammoth” banks in the United States banking system today. (I have discussed this in many other posts.)

A liquidity crisis is a short run phenomenon related to the disclosure that the price of a certain financial asset should be different from what it had recently been trading at. The buy side of the market disappears and the price of the financial asset drops, sometimes precipitously. In the classical case, the central bank comes into the market and makes sure that there is sufficient liquidity in the market so that the price of the asset in question stabilizes and trading can resume.

The prices of other similar assets may be caught up in this uncertainty but the response of the central bank is enough to stabilize the market.

A solvency crisis is different. In a solvency crisis the value of the assets must be written down, but the concern is over the ability of the institutions that own the assets to cover the value write down with the equity capital they possess. Of course, the value of the assets may go up at some time in the future but in general these institutions must “work off” these assets over time in a way that does not exhaust their capital base.

Otherwise, if the effected institutions have to write off these “underwater” assets immediately they may have to be closed.

A solvency crisis takes a much longer time to get over than does a liquidity crisis. That is why so many small- to medium-sized banks are still having so much difficulty even with massive amounts of liquidity available in the banking system.

The problem with the current situation in the European Union is that the situation is not one of liquidity, but one of solvency. There is a very real concern in the market for sovereign debt about whether or not certain nations within the EU can maintain their solvency given the debt load their governments have assumed and given the very weak nature of their economies.

There is a question about the ability of certain governments to be able to pay-off their debts. And, if these debts cannot be re-paid, what will happen to the solvency of the banks and other institutions that now hold this sovereign debt. Special concern exists about commercial banks in Germany and France. Some think that the real reason for the Greek bailout is to keep several major banks in Germany and France from failing. (See the second post mentioned above.)

Just providing Greece the ability to be able to roll over its debt in the next twelve months or so is an attempt to make Greek debt “liquid”. The hopes are that this will buy time for the Greek government to “right its ship” so that it will be able to meet its financial obligations and then go bravely forward. The financial markets have responded by saying that the Greek situation is not a problem of market liquidity but a problem of government solvency: the government, as it appears now, cannot pay its bills.

The concern over solvency has spread. If Greece lied to its debtors, maybe other countries have been doing so as well. Maybe these other countries are not as well off as was thought. Hence, a need to check other “undisciplined” countries out.

The credit ratings of Spain and Portugal were lowered (with Portugal facing additional review concerning its credit rating). Isn’t this evidence enough. But, of course, other countries are on the radar screen: countries that have been particularly profligate like Great Britain where the Labour Government outspent the rate of inflation since 1997 by 41%! But also Italy and Ireland.

What we seem to be seeing in the world is a realignment away from countries that have over-stayed their welcome in the credit markets. We see this especially in the currency markets. The value of the euro has plunged against the dollar and other major currencies. Today, May 6 it hit a 52-week low around 1.26. In other areas of the currency market the move seems to be away from the currencies of countries having “debt problems” to those that appear to be more secure.

The same thing has occurred in bond markets. The rush to United States Treasury bonds has been phenomenal over the past week. The two-year Treasury was yielding about 1.07% April 23 while the ten-year Treasury was yielding around 3.82%. These two yields have dropped to 0.79% and 3.39%, respectively, a major move!

When uncertainty increases, market volatility also increases. If we look at one index of market volatility, the CBOE’s VIX index, we see it peaking over 40 today, up from around 20 or so over the past week and in the 15-20 range before that. The market appears to be spooked and this means one might expect the volatility of the financial markets to remain high in the near future.

The major problem going forward is leadership: who can lead the eurozone and Great Britain out of this mess? The concern is captured in Landon Thomas’ article in the New York Times, “Bold Stroke May Be Beyond Europe’s Means,” ( In the case of the eurozone, there is no leader. And, this has been a problem the detractors of this union have pointed to since before the euro was put into place. There is an economic union but no political union. It is like herding cats and given the cracks that are occurring in the structure, many are wondering if this economic union can last for more than two or three years more.

In Great Britain, there is going to be a “hung” Parliament. But, who really wants to rule in jolly ole England. Some are saying that if the new government (‘hung’ or not) really does what it needs to do with respect to the fiscal condition of the nation, these politicians will not be able to be re-elected for the next ten- to fifteen years because they will be so unpopular. Shades of Greece?

The bottom line: governments have lived beyond their means. Certain ‘brands of economics’ have argued that this is possible because people don’t really take into account future tax liabilities or future inflation. They are very ‘current minded.’ It just seems possible that this philosophy has run its course!

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